Research Article: Use of a design challenge to develop postural support devices for intermediate wheelchair users

Date Published: September 08, 2017

Publisher: AOSIS

Author(s): Brenda N. Onguti, Deepti Tanuku, Elizabeth J. Himelfarb Hurwitz, Nathaniel C. Moller, Youseph Yazdi, Shannon Egan, Eva S. Bazant, Anthony Gichangi.


The provision of an appropriate wheelchair, one that provides proper fit and postural support, promotes wheelchair users’ physical health and quality of life. Many wheelchair users have postural difficulties, requiring supplemental postural support devices for added trunk support. However, in many low- and middle-income settings, postural support devices are inaccessible, inappropriate or unaffordable. This article describes the use of the design challenge model, informed by a design thinking approach, to catalyse the development of an affordable, simple and robust postural support device for low- and middle-income countries. The article also illustrates how not-for-profit organisations can utilise design thinking and, in particular, the design challenge model to successfully support the development of innovative solutions to product or process challenges.

Partial Text

Globally, an estimated 70 million people require wheelchairs (World Health Organization [WHO] n.d.). When a wheelchair user is equipped with an appropriately fitting wheelchair that provides postural support, it promotes physical well-being and improves quality of life. For wheelchair users, better posture means greater comfort, enhanced safety, improved breathing and digestion, and greater mobility (WHO & USAID 2013). Wheelchair users who have good trunk strength and stability can independently sit upright when provided with a basic postural support system which includes the backrest, cushion, footrests and armrests of a wheelchair (WHO, ISPO & USAID 2008). However, many wheelchair users have postural difficulties and require supplemental postural support devices for upright seating. Postural support devices brace the wheelchair user’s body in an upright position when they are unable to do so independently. The design of postural support devices varies depending on the support they are intended to provide; different devices are used to provide stability to the pelvis, hips, trunk, head, thighs or lower legs (WHO & USAID 2013).

A design challenges is an innovation competition or collaboration that focuses on quickly generating product or process designs to meet the specific needs of particular end users (Design Council n.d.). A design challenge draws on design thinking, a problem solving methodology that encourages rapid prototyping, iteration, and learning, to help propel innovators past common design roadblocks and prioritises product suitability and usability by providing structured opportunities for stakeholder feedback. When properly implemented, design thinking disrupts thinking based on conventional biases, like an inclination to one’s own view of a problem and its solution or an end users’ inability to describe their need (Jeanne 2015). Therefore, value is placed on developing a comprehensive understanding of the needs of stakeholders thus reframing design obstacles to yield solutions with lasting impact ( 2015).

The objective of this article was to highlight how design challenge, a tool in the design thinking toolbox, was utilised to catalyse the design of affordable, simple and robust postural support devices for the low-resource settings.

Too often, innovations flounder during market introduction because designers and developers fail to consider the context in which their products will function and the full range of stakeholder and user perspectives.




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